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Early Mesoamerican Social Transformations

Early Mesoamerican Social Transformations: Archaic and Formative Lifeways in the Soconusco Region

Edited by Richard G. Lesure
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Early Mesoamerican Social Transformations
    Book Description:

    Between 3500 and 500 bc, the social landscape of ancient Mesoamerica was completely transformed. At the beginning of this period, the mobile lifeways of a sparse population were oriented toward hunting and gathering. Three millennia later, protourban communities teemed with people. These essays by leading Mesoamerican archaeologists examine developments of the era as they unfolded in the Soconusco region along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Guatemala, a region that has emerged as crucial for understanding the rise of ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica. The contributors explore topics including the gendered division of labor, changes in subsistence, the character of ceremonialism, the emergence of social inequality, and large-scale patterns of population distribution and social change. Together, they demonstrate the contribution of Soconusco to cultural evolution in Mesoamerica and challenge what we thought we knew about the path toward social complexity.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95056-6
    Subjects: Archaeology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. ONE Early Social Transformations in the Soconusco: AN INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-24)
    Richard G. Lesure

    The period 3500 b.c. to 500 b.c. was one of momentous change in Mesoamerica. At the beginning of that span, the region was sparsely occupied by low-level food producers whose rhythms of existence were dominated by the concerns of hunting and gathering. By 500 b.c., it was populated with settled agriculturalists in a landscape increasingly full of people. Proto-urban communities, laid out according to spatial schemes that would continue through the Spanish Conquest two millennia later, were foci of social and political life. Public rituals included worship of deities that were to persist into the Classic and Postclassic eras. Though...

  6. Part I Archaic to Formative:: Transformations in Subsistence

    • TWO A Gender-Based Model for Changes in Subsistence and Mobility During the Terminal Late Archaic Period on the Coast of Chiapas, Mexico
      (pp. 27-46)
      Barbara Voorhies and Douglas J. Kennett

      Our purpose in this chapter is to investigate in detail the changes in subsistence and settlement mobility manifested over four millennia by the prehistoric Chantuto people. These ancient people occupied what is now the south Pacific coast of Mexico from approximately 7,500 to 4,000 years ago (Voorhies 2004:14). They are best known for the large, highly visible shell mounds that they formed within the wetlands along the outer coast, and this site type is the most thoroughly investigated of what we have inferred to be a settlement system comprising multiple site types formed by residentially mobile people (Voorhies 2004).


    • THREE Evidence for the Diversity of Late Archaic and Early Formative Plant Use in the Soconusco Region of Mexico and Guatemala
      (pp. 47-66)
      Michael Blake and Hector Neff

      All of us who have worked and lived in the Soconusco region would agree that it is a land of plenty. As in many tropical regions in the Americas, it is a land where fence posts take root and sprout branches and leaves (Budowski 1987). The daily and weekly markets display a bewildering array of locally produced plants and animals. Baskets of fish from the oceans and estuaries provide a colorful array of tempting dining possibilities. Local residents often remark that the countryside is so productive that one would have to be a fool to go hungry. But this plentitude...

      (pp. 67-94)
      Richard G. Lesure and Thomas A. Wake

      Recent work in the early archaeology of the Soconusco leaves unresolved the nature of local adaptive transformations between the Archaic and Early Formative periods and the distinctiveness of those transformations within the larger picture of Mesoamerica. Three important elements of the local Early Formative adaptive reorientation—greater sedentism, the adoption of pottery, and the initiation of a trajectory of demographic expansion—were shared with regions that were environmentally very different, including the Gulf Coast, the Valley of Oaxaca, and the Basin of Mexico. Those similarities of pattern, together with the simultaneity of transitions to the Early Formative (1800 ± 100...

  7. Part II Emergent Complexity:: The Archaeological Records of Early Political Centers

    • FIVE Building History in Domestic and Public Space at Paso de la Amada: AN EXAMINATION OF MOUNDS 6 AND 7
      (pp. 97-118)
      Michael Blake

      By about 1900 cal b.c., the people living along the coast of Chiapas, Mexico were beginning to settle in permanent communities. Their settlements, with substantial dwellings, some public structures, and numerous smaller features, were occupied year-round and were not simply temporary seasonal stops on a sequence of trips through the swamps and estuaries of the coastal plain.¹ From our archaeological point of view—that is, looking back into the distant past with only a few scattered and fragmentary remains of these ancient settlements—this new lifestyle looks revolutionary. But, seen from the perspective of the entire Pacific coast of what...

    • SIX Paso de la Amada as a Ceremonial Center
      (pp. 119-145)
      Richard G. Lesure

      Paso de la Amada, with its dozens of low mounds and an occupation from the Barra through Cherla phases, has been known for some time as a significant Early Formative site of the Soconusco region (Blake et al. 1995; Ceja Tenorio 1985; Lowe 1977). Though discoveries of the sequence of high-status residences in Mound 6 and the ballcourt in Mound 7 irrevocably established the site’s larger importance (Chapter 5 in this book), in a sense they pull interpretation in divergent directions. The ballcourt links Paso de la Amada firmly to larger Mesoamerican traditions.

      The large buildings in Mound 6 are...

    • SEVEN A History of Disaster and Cultural Change in the Coatán River Drainage of the Soconusco, Chiapas, Mexico
      (pp. 146-169)
      Gerardo Gutiérrez

      In 1794 the capital of the Soconusco province was moved from Escuintla to Tapachula. The reason for this change was a storm with strong winds that caused severe damage to Escuintla’s commerce and harm to its population (Pineda 1999:72 [1845]). These “strong winds” likely referenced a powerful hurricane that hit the area. Two hundred and eleven years later, another hurricane, Stan, provoked similar destruction in many parts of Tapachula. Given that hurricanes and other natural hazards are annual events in southern Mexico and Central America, one is led to ask if previous hurricanes caused similar damage to ancient population centers...

    • EIGHT La Blanca and the Soconusco Middle Formative
      (pp. 170-188)
      Michael Love and Julia Guernsey

      The greater soconusco saw the dramatic transformation of human societies during the second and first millennia b.c., with the transition from the first sedentary villages to urban settlements taking place in just 1,500 years (ca. 1900– 400 b.c.).* Change during that time undoubtedly was constant, but it was not necessarily seamless. While manifestly the long-term trend was toward increasing complexity, there may have been episodes of turmoil leading to cycles in which political integration alternated with times in which centralized political power was weak (Love 2002a).

      The clearest evidence that we have of political cycling on the coastal plain and...

  8. Part III Beyond the Individual Study Area:: Grappling With Issues of Scale

    • NINE Early Formative Transitions in Settlement and Subsistence at Chiquiuitan, Guatemala
      (pp. 191-216)
      Molly Morgan

      Understanding early sedentary society and the concomitant cultural transitions that occurred in the Formative period have been some of the most difficult problems of Mesoamerican archaeology. Along the Pacific coastal region of Mexico and Guatemala, increasing evidence demonstrates significant advances in subsistence, technology, trade, symbolic systems, and social relations. Much of the recent work on these topics is documented in the chapters of this volume. This chapter adds to the growing Pacific coast data by addressing settlement and subsistence at the site of Chiquiuitan in Guatemala. I describe data collected at Chiquiuitan between 2006 and 2009 from a small site...

    • TEN Jocotal Settlement Patterns, Salt Production, and Pacific Coast Interactions
      (pp. 217-241)
      Mary E. Pye, John Hodgson and John E. Clark

      The jocotal phase was originally conceived as, and long held to be, a fifty-year blip in Early Formative chronology—a brief moment before the arrival of the Middle Formative Conchas phase (1000– 850 b.c.) (Blake et al. 1995; Coe and Flannery 1967:23). Now, instead, Jocotal is understood to extend from 1200 b.c. through 1000 b.c.* The importance of the subsequent Middle Formative period in the Soconusco is demonstrated at the site of La Blanca. La Blanca was first brought to archaeologists’ attention by Edwin Shook, who chronicled the demise of a 25 m high mound bulldozed for road fill in...

    • ELEVEN An Early Mesoamerican Archipelago of Complexity
      (pp. 242-271)
      Robert M. Rosenswig

      Fernand Braudel (1992) employed the termArchipelago of Townsto describe the spottiness of innovation in Medieval Europe against a “sea of backwardness.” The analogy is to a network of cultural islands, forming an archipelago of interaction across the continent. These centers were dazzling because in nearby areas people lived a traditional existence without the material trappings of urban life (Braudel 1992:30). On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, in extensive regions of the countryside, even that surrounding London and Amsterdam, people lived by hunting and fishing as they had for millennia (Braudel 1992:42– 43). Similarly, in his recent synthesis...

      (pp. 272-280)
      Richard G. Lesure

      The deep antagonisms that characterized theoretical debate in archaeology twenty-five years ago have mostly ebbed away. These days, when we set about to narrate the origins of Mesoamerican civilization, it does not seem necessary to select a single theoretical framework—practice theory, evolutionary ecology, or what have you—as the unique scaffolding for interpretation or explanation. Plausibly, more than one framework might contribute toward a holistic narrative. That sentiment is consistent with archaeologists’ growing interest in pluralism, but if we take it seriously we create potentially daunting empirical demands. We may well enrich our accounts of the past by drawing...

  9. INDEX
    (pp. 281-290)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-294)